Today’s Gospel focuses on the question of what to do “if your brother sins against you.” Sometimes, in addition to being merciful and patient, we must correct each other. Jesus teaches us the proper approach to fraternal correction. Part of being a Christian is the responsibility to love others enough to help them out of the trap of sin. Correcting others is sharing God’s truth with them in love.
St. Paul tells us in his Letter to the Romans that the one thing that we “owe” to one another is love, “for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” He says that all the commandments can be summed up in this one saying: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The context of Jesus’ words about correcting sinners, then, is always love. We must correct others, not based on justice alone, but also based on love. God’s grace works in us so that we can become people of love, a love that fulfills the law perfectly. This is at the core of the Good News, that the Spirit of God’s Love has been poured into our hearts and now we have the mind and heart of Christ (cf. Rm 5:5; 1Cor 2:16).
The reading from Ezekiel also touches on the theme of fraternal correction. Our prophetic role as “appointed watchman” for one another means that sometimes we much correct not only those who have offended us personally – which is the case Jesus speaks about – but also those for whom we have some responsibility. In other words, we are responsible not only for our salvation but also for the salvation of one another. We are “our brother’s keeper” (cf. Gn 4:9).
Ezekiel does not specify who “the wicked” are to whom God sends us to correct them. It depends largely on the nature of our relationship with them. Very rarely are we to confront random strangers about their wrongdoing. Close relatives and friends, however, depend on us, and we depend on them. Husbands and wives, for example, called to grow together in holiness, must sometimes challenge each other when one is caught in a sin pattern. Parents are certainly responsible to correct their children; it is part of their obligation to guide their children on the path to God, away from sin. Priests must correct their straying parishioners; teachers must correct students; friends must correct friends – always with truth in love. We are not called to “force” others to amend their ways, but we must do our part. The Ezekiel reading reveals what a grave responsibility this is. God says through the prophet, “If … you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked from his way, the wicked shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death.”
Jesus outlines the basic steps of fraternal correction in the Gospel. First of all, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.” Keep it private! We often fail to take this step because we fear the reaction of the other. Fraternal correction is risky. The person may react with anger and defensiveness, or even accuse us of being the one in the wrong. In fact, we might even find out when we take this first step that we are wrong, and the other person is right. Love should move us to take these risks. If in our own weakness and sin, we bypass talking privately to the offender, and instead talk to other people, complaining and judging, we fall into the grave sin of gossip. It is always easy to find people who are eager to hear about the faults of another. When we gossip, we make the problem worse, not better. It is a failure to love.
If our brother does not listen to us, then we proceed to step two: “If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that ‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses’” (cf. Dt 19:15). Bringing others with us helps add objectivity. The presence of a neutral third party also helps diffuse some of the tension that can build up and facilitates clearer communication.
There is a possibility that the person still will not listen, so Jesus offers a third step: “If he refuses to listen to them, tell the Church.” This opens the problem to the larger community. We should not take this step for minor matters but only if we are facing a serious moral problem that really must be corrected. The fourth step is: “If he refuses to listen even to the Church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.” What does this mean? Pope Francis gives a good explanation in this week’s Spiritual Reflection: “This expression, seemingly so scornful, in reality invites us to put the brother in God’s hands: only the Father will be able to show a greater love than that of all brothers and sisters put together.” We do not give up, or give in to hatred; rather, we put our trust in God as we continue to pray for the offender.
God’s love changes hearts. We know this from our own experience. His love changes us; it can change anyone. When our hearts are filled with divine love, we become instruments of the Holy Spirit. This is the very power of Christianity, which, though often hidden, makes a big difference in our troubled world. Jesus tells us today that we have an obligation to be instruments of this big difference in the lives of others, especially those who are walking in darkness. We are all called to bear witness to the Gospel of Truth in Love – by how we live, and at times by how we correct one another. As the Gospel Acclamation says, God has indeed entrusted to us “the message of reconciliation” (cf. 2 Cor 5:19).
What will be the serious consequences to myself if I do not lovingly correct a serious fault of someone? Do I trust in God to change the hearts of those who refuse to listen to correction by continuing to pray for them? How is gossiping a sin against love?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 19, no. 7. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.